The True Cost of Wealth on HBO’s Succession

The Season 3 premiere of the Roy-family saga is as chaotic and luxurious as ever.

Brian Cox and Sarah Snook near a private jet on 'Succession'
Hunter Graeme / HBO

As Season 3 of Succession begins, the mighty Logan Roy (played by Brian Cox) is in the crosshairs. His son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) has exposed the family patriarch’s involvement in covering up a litany of scandals at their company, Waystar Royco, calling him “a malignant presence, a bully, and a liar.” The impulsive decision could be fatal for the media conglomerate, potentially attracting the attention of the government and affecting every employee. Thousands of jobs are on the line, and the future of news in Succession’s America is at stake.

Yet to the inner circle around Logan, such a predicament can be compared, of all things, to ice cream. “This is the full Baskin-Robbins—31 flavors of fuck,” one subordinate hisses to another while speculating about their boss’s chances. What’s happening to Logan may be worrisome to his closest lackeys, but not terrifying enough to prevent them from delivering the satire’s signature serious-silly dialogue. After all, they’re chatting while seated on one of Logan’s private jets, soaring above and away from the fallout.

During tonight’s premiere of the hit HBO series, the Roys and their attendants experience their crisis in comfort. Kendall, after betraying his father, gathers himself in a marbled hotel bathroom fit for a spa day, not Judgment Day. Logan, spooked but not helpless, asks for a list of locations without extradition treaties with the U.S. and settles on Sarajevo—a pointed choice for the start of a corporate war, to be sure, but also one that offers accommodations at a five-star hotel. The other Roys pinball around the world, jetting off to Waystar Royco’s various headquarters in private planes, diligently chartered by Hugo (Fisher Stevens).

From Dynasty to Big Little Lies, TV has long ogled how the wealthy suffer misfortune in luxury, aboard yachts and inside elegant residences, in scenes that “come off as a little too self-satisfied,” my colleague Hannah Giorgis pointed out while writing about HBO’s The Undoing. “No matter how unpleasant their circumstances, the show reminds us at every turn, these characters still lead enviable lives.”

Succession is subtly different. The wealth on display—glass-walled corner offices, grayscale hotel suites—is insulation that appears expensive, but not cozy. Their rich surroundings look cold, bleak, and sterile. Money, for the Roys, manifests as a pristine double-edged weapon, lulling them into seeing their crisis as an opportunity and preventing them from grasping the larger implications of Waystar Royco’s scandal. It’s darkly funny to see Logan’s allies, during a meeting aboard the jet to discuss their next steps, perk up at the mention of him needing someone to play interim CEO, even though he makes it clear he’ll still be calling the shots. Never mind the sexual-assault allegations against a high-level executive, the company’s toxic workplace, or the plight of its employees. Getting a chance to be the puppet in charge is far more important, rendering everything else invisible.

Even Kendall, the Roy calling himself “righteous” and insisting that he intends to “change the cultural climate,” is shielded by his wealth, which allows him access to a high-powered lawyer, a team of crisis-PR managers, and his ex-wife’s gorgeous apartment as a harbor in which to set up shop. Such affluence means he doesn’t have to engage with the public—and therefore doesn’t register the dire consequences of his actions or how phony he sounds. He doesn’t clock his ex-wife’s disdain and thinks he’s on the same page as his new hires, whom he pummels with grandiose ideas, not about how to transform Waystar Royco’s practices, but about promoting his image. Early in the episode, he escapes the post-press-conference frenzy in a company car, safe from the outside world.

At least, he is until Logan calls. On Succession, the family’s money protects them from the rest of society, but it does nothing to protect them from their own everlasting dysfunction and toxicity. Indeed, such seclusion knits them closer together, tightening their twisted codependent relationships and securing their ignorance. And the tragicomedy of Succession comes from the way these characters seem to relish that dynamic: The comfort they find in this crisis isn’t just about the five-star hotels and private planes. They’re also energized by the chaos that could help them accumulate more power. Kendall could have ignored his father’s call, but he picked up. Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) eschews the other tasks Logan assigns him, calling Shiv (Sarah Snook) from the bathroom of Logan’s jet to gossip with her about the CEO shake-up. Roman (Kieran Culkin), similarly unbothered by the bigger picture, pounces on the opportunity to taunt Shiv about losing the position, sinking into a king-size bed in his hotel suite as he does. Experiencing a crisis such as this, it seems, is a treat. One that’s available in 31 flavors.


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Listen to Shirley Li discuss Succession on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast The Review:

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